You may have noticed that the Republican presidential primary is going completely haywire — or at least in directions totally unpredicted by the pundits, yours truly very much included.
My money is still on Marco Rubio, and that bet isn't looking too bad lately. But things are so unpredictable that alternative scenarios are beginning to emerge.
In particular, it's hard not to notice that the candidates who are flying highest in the polls are non-politicians. The world in general, from Greece and Catalonia to Scotland and France, is in an anti-establishmentarian mood. In the U.S., the GOP in particular is in its throes.
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But of the Big Three non-career-politicians in the race, we mostly hear about two: Carly Fiorina, because of her rhetorical prowess; and Donald Trump because, well, Trump. We hear much less about the soft-spoken, discrete Ben Carson, who is nonetheless riding just as high in the polls.
And we probably should hear more about him, because there's a case to be made that he's our next president. Let's review the scenario.
1. The primary
As I noted in a previous column, while the conventional wisdom is that the GOP always ends nominating the establishment candidate, the math actually favors the anti-establishment candidate. In the 2012 primary, the anti-establishment camp garnered more votes than the establishment candidate, a fact obscured by there being two anti-establishment candidates. And, if anything, the GOP's mood is even more anti-establishment this time around.
Add to that the fact that Ben Carson is not only riding high in general polls, and not only riding high in early state polls, but has positively Soviet-like approval ratings among Evangelicals, a key GOP voting bloc. Add to that the fact that he has none of the other two anti-establishment candidates' obvious pitfalls — Fiorina's decidedly mixed business record, which will undermine her claim to being Ms. CEO-fix-it once voters hear more about it, and Trump's, well, Trumpness.
Put all those things together, and Ben Carson has a clear path to the nomination.
2. The general election
What about the general election?
Well, Carson has obvious pitfalls there: He says and believes out-of-the-mainstream, if not downright crazy, things. He often sounds conspiratorial. His 10-percent-flat-tax-on-everyone-and-that's-it tax plan is easily (and correctly!) demonizable as raising taxes on the poor and cutting them for the rich, while busting the budget and never standing a chance in Congress.
But put that aside for a second. (Don't worry, we'll come back to it.)
Firstly, obviously, Carson's race scrambles the cards in frankly unknowable ways. The big question mark of Hillary Clinton's presidential candidacy is whether an old rich white person can hold together Obama's "rainbow coalition" of minorities and downwardly-mobile Americans (with a splash of HENRYs) — an African-American GOP candidate obviously makes that an even trickier situation. Maybe African-American voters will just perceive Ben Carson as the same old Republican package in a new box, especially if Carson's rhetoric on race stays just as conservative, and still pull for the Democratic candidate in such overwhelming numbers. Maybe.
But as writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates have pointed out, there are lots of African-Americans who actually agree with conservative talking points about welfare and black culture and fatherlessness; they vote for the Democratic Party because they perceive the GOP as structurally opposed to their interests, even though they might agree with it more on the merits. What's more, Ben Carson was extremely popular in the African-American community for decades on account of his life story, before he became a Tea Party darling. A Republican candidate doesn't need a majority of African-American votes to make the Electoral College unwinnable for the Democratic candidate, just a large-enough minority. It's not at all crazy to imagine that Carson might pull it off.
Secondly, imagine if Ben Carson had a smart political and image consultant, and imagine if Ben Carson really wanted to run a disciplined presidential campaign that aimed to win, rather than promote his books.
Carson might get a new tax plan and defend it with something like, "I still believe my original tax plan is the best tax plan, and I think it's important to get the conversation moving, but I also realize that I need to get a tax plan that can pass Congress."
More importantly, Carson would understand that presidential campaigns are won with narrative as much as substance, and that even though his substance is out of the mainstream, his narrative is absolute gold. His personal story is, of course, enormously impressive. His religiosity — as long as he doesn't wear it on his sleeve too much or make easily demonizable statements — is an asset. And, as has been noted, the anti-establishmentarian mood extends well beyond the GOP itself, and the contrast between a non-politician and Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider, who hasn't driven a car since 1996, is easily drawn. If Carson makes the campaign about his own narrative, allying his personal story with the broader one of "we the people" wresting power away from the political elite and the K Street-Wall Street nexus, that is a compelling pitch indeed.
In that case, to circle back to Carson's most out-of-the-mainstream views, he has an easy response to Clinton's predictable lines of attack ("He's too out of the mainstream"; "He's just a puppet of the same old extremist Republicans"); he can simply laugh them off as yet another facet of the same-old Washington politics that he's running to replace. Would that defeat all the attacks? Of course not. Might it blunt them enough to give him an Electoral College squeaker? Possibly!
Political analysts have noted that one of the key factors in Barack Obama's 2012 victory was his "grand bet" to spend inordinate amounts of money in the summer, before the traditional spending splurge in the fall, attacking Mitt Romney as a rapacious, heartless businessman, and thereby defining him in the mind of voters. Carson might pursue the opposite "grand bet": spending inordinate money early to define himself on the basis of his narrative, a narrative conspicuously more attractive than Clinton's narrative of constant lying and shenanigans and careerism.
Is this the most likely general election outcome? No, of course not. But, in a universe where Donald Trump has spent months atop the polls and where Bernie Sanders is leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, is it a possible outcome?
Ben Carson, president of the United States? Strap on your seatbelts.
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